The Five Stages Of Belief In Lviv: #3 Myth – The Golden Rose Saves A Synagogue

Like every great nation, every great city has its myths. Lviv is no different. The city is home to an enduring myth, one so powerful that it has actually managed to outlast the destruction of its subject. The myth is based on the Golden Rose Synagogue, a structure that historically was Lviv’s most famous Jewish house of worship. The synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, but the story of how it avoided another mortal threat centuries earlier still survives today. Whether this story is true or not is beside the point. Myths are based on what people want to believe and also on what they need to believe. They shape a narrative of history that often casts their subject in the best light, illuminating virtuous traits and deeply held values. Myths appeal because they play to people’s fantasies. Unlike academic history, they tell really good stories that are easily recalled. All of these traits can be found in Lviv’s Legend of the Golden Rose.

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue

Painting of the Golden Rose Synagogue by Odo Dobrowolski in 1912

The Jesuits Versus The Jews – Battling For The Site Of A Synagogue
The Golden Rose synagogue was commissioned by a powerful Jewish financier Izak Nachmanowicz in 1581. The following year an Italian master architect, Paulus Italus, began the design and construction process that took over a decade to complete. The synagogue was built for as a private house of worship for Nachmanowicz and those closest to him. At the time, he was head of Lviv’s Jewish assembly. The synagogue was first named after its founder. This would be one of three names given to it. The second name was Turei Zahav (“The Golden Lines”), which came from a treatise on Judaic religious law by the famous Jewish scholar Rabbi David Ha-Segal, who spent a considerable amount of time in the synagogue praying and thinking during the middle of the 17th century. The most enduring name for the synagogue, the Golden Rose, came last and endured the longest.

The legend behind the Golden Rose begins in 1603. The Jesuits were searching for a site within the city walls of Lviv to build a large stone church. This structure would be much more impressive than the wooden chapel they had previously used.  The problem was that very little land was available within the city walls. The city did not want to give the Jesuits a plot of land because church property was exempt from taxes. Taking a large plot off the tax rolls would damage city finances. The city and the Jesuits were at an impasse. The Jesuits appealed to the Polish King at the time, Sigismund III, to intervene. This was a smart move in their favor since he was also a Jesuit. The king broke the deadlock in the Jesuits favor, deeding them a large plot of land in the Jewish district.

A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

The Legend Lives On – A scene outside the Golden Rose Synagogue as painted by Alfred Kamienobrodzki

Rosa For Her People – The Ultimate Sacrifice
Among the buildings already on the site was the Nachmanowicz Synagogue. The importance of this building to the Jewish community would seem to preclude all other claims. This was not to be the case as the Jesuits produced documentation showing that the land had once been owned by a Catholic priest. The Jesuits now had the king on their side as well as a legal argument for their right to ownership. The case was heard in court, with a decision made against the Jews. This was too much for the Jewish community to bear. Their most important sacral structure was about to be taken away from them.  At this point the generally agreed upon facts end, what comes next is more story and less history.

With no legal recourse left to them, Lviv’s Jews thought the synagogue was lost forever. That is when a widowed daughter-in-law of Nachmanowicz by the name of Rosa decided to take action. First she offered up her own considerable wealth to purchase the site. The Jesuit bishop would only consider this deal if Rosa made the offer to him in person. And so she did. The bishop was immediately taken aback by her awe inspiring beauty. He agreed to return the synagogue back to the Jewish community on one condition, that Rosa was to stay with him. In a selfless act to benefit her people she agreed to the bishop’s demand. The Jesuits rescinded their rights to the synagogue. The Jewish community gained possession of the site for good. The unfortunate Rosa was now the bishop’s property, but not for long. During their first night together the relationship was consummated, but in the darkest hours of the night Rosa ingested poison. She died shortly thereafter. Her sacrifice of wealth and life for the spiritual sustenance of her people became the stuff of legend. In the process Rosa gained a fame that has lasted much longer than her life. She was the Golden Rose that the synagogue would be named after.

The Golden Rose Synagogue

More Than A Myth – The Golden Rose Synagogue in 1901

Mythological Proportions – A Golden Rose Grows
Can this story be true? Like all great myths it is ambiguous and contains many kernels of the truth. This is a story that roughly fits the framework of the facts. Rosa was a real person who was related by marriage to Nachmanowicz. The Jesuits were all powerful at the time. They had both the king and legal system on their side. Only a transcendent power could have changed their minds. Rosa’s mysterious beauty and sublime selflessness worked like magic. Myths often blend human and supernatural elements together. These were embodied in the persona of Rosa. She could work wonders or so the listener is led to believe. The facts say otherwise. The real wonder worker was a bribe of 20,600 guilders that was paid by the Jewish community to the Jesuits. It is easy to see why this one fact always gets overlooked. It does not speak of cleverness, guile and mysterious beauty. Instead it says that possession has a price and money decides matters. Would any community want to be seen as giving in to extortion? The Legend of the Golden Rose is just the opposite.  Selflessness and sacrifice was how the Jewish community of Lviv wanted to be seen. Rosa and the Legend of the Golden Rose represent that community, a powerful statement of values that has grown to mythological proportions.

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